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Russian war games set stage for Biden and Putin’s head-to-head

On the day that Joe Biden met Vladimir Putin in Geneva, the Russians held war games moving their nuclear missiles around, while Nato warplanes were scrambled to intercept Russian fighters over the Baltic.

If Biden had wanted to illustrate his emphasis on the need for stability and dialogue between Washington and Moscow, he could not have arranged it better.

In the post cold war years, Russia has shrunk to an economic minnow, but it still has the biggest nuclear arsenal in the world, with more than 6,250 warheads (compared with the US total of 5,550) according to the Federation of American Scientists.

It is also increasingly a military adventurist power, sending troops to Ukraine and Syria – though not nearly on the scale of the US worldwide presence – while its cyber warriors conduct continual aggressive operations across the world.

None of this was resolved in three hours of talks in Geneva, and there were no agreements to announce. There was no time to prepare anything, even if there had been any convergence on the many issues that divide the two countries.

Instead there was agreement that US and Russian officials would sit down and talk in the coming few months. An unexciting outcome – but not entirely lacking in substance. Such strategic stability dialogue has been patchy to nonexistent since the Russian seizure of Crimea in 2014, provoking fears of a conflict blowing up through miscalculation and distrust.

The renewed dialogue is aimed at better coordination over the Baltic and over Syria. US and Russian officials will also start talks about a possible successor to the 2010 New Start treaty, the last remaining arms control agreement between the two countries, which barely survived the Trump era.

The paradox of Donald Trump’s presidency was that while Trump himself was obsequious towards Putin, his senior officials, under national security adviser John Bolton, scaled back contacts between the two governments, and sought to dismantle the arms control accords which they felt were constraining the US more than Russia.

Over the past four years, the impetus towards nuclear disarmament has halted and threatens to go into reverse, with both the US and Russia pressing ahead with hugely expensive modernisation programmes for their arsenals.

In that context, it was significant that a joint statement by Biden and Putin after Wednesday’s meeting reaffirmed the historic declaration by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought”.

The two countries will also hold talks on access routes for humanitarian supplies going to Syria; on Afghanistan during and after the Nato withdrawal; and on the fate of Americans being held on spurious charges in Russia.

It is all just talk, which plays into Putin’s hands. As long as it is just talk, he can show (to his inner circle, to China and other governments) he is being taken seriously without having to give anything up.

After the talks, Biden admitted that simply starting the talks was not an end in itself. “We’ll find out within the next six months to a year whether or not we actually have a strategic dialogue that matters,” he said.

On the possibility of a successor to New Start, Biden said: “I started working on arms control agreements back all the way during the cold war. If we can do one in the cold war, why couldn’t we do one now? We will see whether or not it happens.

There will also be discussions on establishing limits on cyber warfare. Biden said he conveyed the message that the US would respond to any further cyber aggression emanating from Russia, but was unclear on what the response would be. Instead he asked Putin to contemplate how he would respond if Russia’s oil pipeline network was subject to a ransomware attack launched from “Florida or Maine”.

The accusations of appeasement have already begun. The top Republican on the Senate foreign relations committee, James Risch, argued the meeting should not have gone ahead without the release of Americans held by Moscow on trumped-up charges.

“Summits are about delivering results,” Risch said, “So to learn there was no tangible progress made with Russia on any issue is both unfortunate and disappointing.”

Fiona Hill, who was senior adviser on Russia in the Trump administration and who helped Biden prepare for the Geneva summit, said concrete results from an initial meeting were never likely, but that restoring the strategic stability dialogue was essential for two nuclear superpowers.

“It’s the anchor to the relationship,” Hill said. “It’s there, as it was in the cold war, to stop something horrible from happening, recognising we can still blow ourselves up and lots of other people along with us. It’s the one area where they continue to be the issue and not China.”

Hill added that one of the hardest areas to make progress would be in cyber warfare. It is an area where there are no warheads, or tanks or planes to count, and where Russia has stuck to blanket denial that it is even carrying out operations, even as it escalates them.

“Cyber is going to be the trickiest issue,” she said. “Putin was never going to say: ‘You got me, guv’ and I will stop doing all those nasty things and everything is going to be wonderful. They’re not going to stop.”

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